Ways to slash your home energy bill

Image: An Energy Star advertisement is shown at an appliance store in Mountain View, Calif.
Americans saved about $17 billion on utility bills in 2009 through energy-efficient methods — the equivalent energy savings of the greenhouse gas emissions in 30 million cars.Paul Sakuma / AP
/ Source: Investopedia

Buying energy-saving appliances and electronics can keep more money in your bank account over the long term, but if you're on a budget, a few lifestyle changes could be a better way to save cash. Here we'll consider which appliances you should think about replacing and which are reliable enough to bank on for years to come.

Efficiency and energy star
Refrigerators, clothes washers and dishwashers churn up the energy that makes up the bulk of your utility bill. If your appliances were born before the '90s, it may be time for an upgrade. Across the board, decade-old appliances are about half as efficient as new; standard appliances are often 75 percent less efficient than Energy Star models.

Energy Star is a joint program of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. The Energy Star website, in 2009, the combination of these appliances and other energy-saving practices saved Americans $17 billion on utility bills and saved enough energy to avoid greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 30 million cars.

But despite the energy savings, when consumers buy Energy Star products, they often face a bit of sticker shock. For example, the most basic 15.6 cubic foot freezer/refrigerator might cost $400, while the Energy Star equivalent might cost $600. For a washing machine, a basic 3.5 cubic foot model might start at $350, with the same size and same brand's Energy Star version costing $570. The higher cost is often justified by claims that energy-efficient choices can save a family about one-third on their energy bills. With the average household spending $1,300 a year on energy bills, that could be a savings of $429 per year.

Other benefits are available to entice consumers to choose energy-efficient appliances. Certain states have rebate programs that offer partial refunds for new, energy-efficient appliances. Some local utilities also offer incentives for Energy Star purchases.

The chilly cost of refrigeration
Start in the kitchen to find the biggest energy drain in your home: the refrigerator. If your icebox is more than a decade old, you could save more than $100 a year by swapping it out. A new refrigerator with auto defrost and a top-mounted freezer uses about half the energy of a '90s version, while a new Energy Star appliance uses 40 percent less energy than an early-2000s model. If your refrigerator is limping toward the end of its 13-year life span, it may be time to replace it.

If a new fridge is not in the budget, you still have options to be more efficient and save a little money on your utilities:

  • Keep the fridge away from heat sources like ovens, dishwashers, or direct sunlight.
  • Leave space for air to circulate around condenser coils, and keep the coils clean.
  • Keep your fridge between 35 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit and your freezer at 0 degrees.

Cooking up a storm
If you don't cook much, an energy-efficient oven or stove doesn't offer significant savings in energy or money. But even if you're an Iron Chef, cooking has little impact on your energy bill, so it makes sense to hang on to your oven and microwave until they conk out on you — which could take 15 years.

Need a replacement? Convection ovens conserve more energy than conventional ovens because heat circulates around the food, reducing cooking time. And microwaves tend to use only two-thirds of the energy it takes to cook the same food in a conventional oven.

Everything but the kitchen sink
Replacing a dishwasher made before 1994 with an Energy Star dishwasher can save you more than $30 a year in utility costs, according the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. More than half the energy used by a dishwasher goes toward heating the water, so models that use less water use less energy.

Your dishwasher should last about 11 years, so an Energy Star model would save you about $330 over the lifetime of the appliance. If that $2.50 a month savings doesn't tempt you to replace it, you still have other ways to increase your dish washing efficiency:

  • Don't wash by hand: Newer dishwashers use less water than you and your bacteria-soaked sponge.
  • Don't rinse: Newer dishwashers can easily clean even heavily soiled dishes.
  • Wash only full loads: It takes the same amount of water to wash your lonely cereal bowl as it does to wash all the tableware from your birthday bash.

Airing your dirty laundry
The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that replacing an early-'90s clothes washer with an Energy Star model can save your family $110 a year on utility bills. Newer models help you save on both your electric and water bills.

Clothes dryers, however, are not regulated by the government; there is no Energy Star program for them. Hold on to a well-functioning dryer until it reaches the end of its useful life — usually about 12 years. Of course, you can always go "old school" and air-dry your clothes on a line or a rack.

Televising the energy revolution
Your television (along with everyone else's) is responsible for 1 percent of U.S. electricity consumption. Flipping on our TVs costs a collective $10 billion in electricity costs per year, and releases more than 55 million tons of CO2 from power plants, according to www.efficientproducts.org.

As such, an inefficient TV could be costing you extra money: a 36-inch cathode ray tube (CRT) television costs about $25 a year to run, while an energy-efficient model can cut that bill by half. This doesn't seem like much, but if you have a TV in every room, the dollars add up.

In TVs smaller than 40 inches, liquid crystal display (LCD) models are more efficient than CRT models. For larger TVs, projection TVs are more efficient, consuming half the electricity of plasma or LCD models. Light-emitting diode (LED) televisions present another energy-efficient option for larger screens. Of course, don't forget the Energy Star label — in any format, these TVs enjoy about a 30% energy savings over their less efficient cousins.

Lighting the way
Energy-efficient, compact fluorescent lighting (CFL) is all the rage in lighting. So is it worth it to replace all your bulbs or should you just remember to turn out the lights?

Replacing your lighting is the fastest, easiest and cheapest way to cut your energy bill. Most households dedicate 11 percent of their energy bills to lighting. New lighting can reduce lighting energy use in your home by 50 percent to 75 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. To save the most energy and money, replace bulbs in the fixtures you flick on the most, such as kitchen ceiling lights, living room and floor lamps, and your outdoor porch or post lamp.

If every American home replaced the bulbs in their five most frequently used fixtures with Energy Star alternatives, the U.S. would save nearly $8 billion yearly in energy costs, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Factoring in the environment
Money is obviously not the only factor in considering whether to replace your old appliances with more energy-efficient models. Simply using the appliances you already have in the most energy-conscious way possible will also reduce your energy bill — it will also reduce the waste involved with throwing away appliances that still work.

Regardless of how you choose to reduce your energy consumption, the Energy Star website states it bluntly: the energy you use in your home can generate twice the greenhouse gas emissions of the average car. Less energy out of your home means fewer emissions from power plants. So, when you look to buy your next dishwasher, remember that you're not just cleaning dishes, you could also be helping to clean up the world.